Taking a career break

Will career gapping be the next big travel trend?

The idea of taking a career break to travel is not a new one. But the long-term relationship between careers and time off is changing fast. Is a new era on the horizon?

People have been taking time off work to travel since before the word ‘career’ was even a thing. In the 1780s, a forty-something Thomas Jefferson journeyed through Europe, visiting cathedrals, enjoying the views and writing about wine along the way.

But it has never been the norm to take a significant mid-career travel break. Such adventures are traditionally viewed as the remit of the young, rich and privileged. Employers have been conditioned to treat anyone older than 25 with suspicion if they have a ‘career gap’ on their resume.

As the millennial generation reaches maturity, perhaps all of this is about to change.

The rise of the gap year

The ‘gap year’ phenomenon blossomed in the 1960s. The young generation born after World War II took advantage of new cultural exchange programmes created between countries to build international cooperation.

In the decades since, gap years have become evermore popular. As the world has become more peaceful and connected, and as international travel has grown cheaper, backpacking trips have become accessible to many more people.

At the same time, a consensus has grown around the advantages of gap years. The benefits that young people reap by challenging themselves in new ways and experiencing other cultures before university, or before stepping onto the career ladder, are widely recognised.

Until very recently, backpacking around the world was associated primarily with young people coming of age. The idea of older people doing it was considered reckless and irresponsible.

In 2015, when my 95-year-old grandmother (may she rest in peace) learned that I was planning to put my career on pause for a year and travel in my mid-thirties, she described it as a “crackpot idea”. I heard that phrase plenty more times before jetting off a couple of years later.

She grew up in very different times. While this kind of attitude still lingers today, it has become an outdated one.

Southeast Asia is one of the most popular regions of the world for travelling on a career gap
Southeast Asia is one of the most popular regions of the world for travelling on a career gap

From the gap year to the career gap

In the 21st century, the concept of the ‘adult gap year’ has come to the fore. The publication of Tim Ferriss’ best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek in 2007 was a watershed moment in this shifting landscape.

Ferriss argued against the conventional wisdom of working continuously through the prime years of your life, planning all the while to retire in comfort in your twilight years.

He wrote: “The question no one really seemed to be answering was: ‘Why do it all in the first place? What’s the pot of gold that justifies spending the best years of your life hoping for happiness in the last?’”

“Just as with gap years in the 1960s, the tide is turning as another new generation matures.”

To counter the societal norm, Ferriss advocated building several shorter breaks throughout your working life to pursue things you enjoy while at your physical peak. He dubbed these breaks “mini-retirements”.

Two years later, the entrepreneur Stefan Sagmeister gave a TED talk promoting a similar concept. He put forward a framework of taking a one-year career break once every seven years. He had implemented this approach into his design studio business and seen tremendous rewards.

In the talk, he said: “We spend about 25 years of our lives learning. There’s another 40 years that’s reserved for working. Then tucked on at the end of it are about 15 years for retirement. I thought it might be helpful to basically cut off five of those retirement years, and intersperse them between the working years.”

The ideas of Ferriss, Sagmeister and other pioneers have reached millions of people worldwide and grown into something resembling a movement. As travel has become ever-easier and attitudes towards working lives have changed, mid-career travel breaks have grown in popularity. The career gap has emerged.

I have witnessed this through my own experiences. When my best friend and I backpacked across Europe as 18-year-olds in 2001, the vast majority of the people we encountered doing the same thing were our age, or not much older. Fast-forward to 2017/18, and when my wife and I took a one-year travel career break, we met a much greater diversity of people of many ages and backgrounds.

However. While the career gap has grown in prominence, it is still a long way from being the norm. Yet, just as with gap years in the 1960s, the tide is turning as another new generation matures.

Taking a career break to travel enables you to recharge your batteries and develop new skills
Taking a career break to travel enables you to recharge your batteries and develop new skills

What is a career gap anyway?

A career gap is quite simply a period of time spent away from work to pursue other interests. It doesn’t have to be for travel; it could be to volunteer, learn a new language or skill, raise children, or even to try a different job.

Taking a career gap does not mean stopping your career progression. Rather, it means you are taking a step back from your regular working environment to develop in other ways.

There are many other phrases often used interchangeably with ‘career gap’. Some I’ve already mentioned above, like career break, gap year and mini-retirement. Then there are others, such as sabbatical. Each has its different mechanics, but they essentially relate to the same concept.

Read more about the definition in our article on what is a career gap.

Is career gapping is about to explode?

There is good reason to believe so, and it can be summarised in one word: millennials.

First, let’s define what a millennial is. Pew Research says that “anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) will be considered a Millennial”.

This means that in 2019, the average age of millennials will pass 30.

“There is a growing body of support in place for the millennial generation to take time out of work to travel.”

As millennials grow further into adulthood, their behaviours and life choices will eventually become the mainstream. The new normal. The new conventional wisdom. And millennials live differently to previous generations. But how?

First of all, millennials approach their careers more fluidly than older generations. A study by Gallup shows that 21% of millennials changed job in the last year, which is more than triple the amount of non-millennials. Just half of millennials, compared with 60% of non-millennials, said they plan to be in the same workplace in a year’s time.

Secondly, millennials are prioritising their spending on experiences over long-term assets. Perhaps driven by the increasing difficulty of achieving home ownership, this generation are investing in travel instead.

Thirdly, millennials are having less children. The US National Center for Health Statistics reported the lowest ever fertility rate in 2016. There may be many reasons for this, including the cost of raising children, different societal expectations, and career considerations.

There’s also the environmental considerations. Millennials are the most climate-conscious generation, and recent evidence shows that the best way individuals can have a positive impact is by having fewer children.

This means that millennials have more freedom to travel. I am not saying that having children should stop people from travelling – I don’t believe it should. We’ve met many people who travel with their children, some permanently, and it’s a wonderful education. However, people without children do have greater perceived mobility, and so they travel more.

A final factor is that there is a growing body of support in place for the millennial generation to take time out of work to travel. The Harvard Business Review has highlighted research showing that organisations benefit when employees take sabbaticals. An increasing number of businesses, large and small, are opening up to the idea and implementing policies to encourage it.

South America continues to grow rapidly as a destination for career gapping
South America continues to grow rapidly as a destination for career gapping

So what next?

In 2016, a survey of over 8,000 millennial employees by ManpowerGroup found that over 40% of millennials were planning to take significant breaks from work in order to travel.

“The more people take the leap, the more that the benefits of doing so will spread and be recognised.”

Planning a trip like this takes several years in itself. We know this because we’ve done it ourselves; it took us five years to save the amount we needed and prepare for our trip. So people who began this process two, three, four or five years ago may now be approaching the finish line.

More recently, the Financial Post in Canada highlighted research showing that two thirds of Canadians have thought about taking a career break, a quarter are already saving for it, and half would use the time off to travel.

The career gap has a burgeoning effect. The more people take the leap, the more that the benefits of doing so will spread and be recognised. Organisations will need to adjust further as the public’s approach to careers becomes more fluid.

By 2020, as outlined in the ManPowergroup report above, millennials will account for over a third of the global workforce. This generation is leading the charge towards a future where it will be a bigger risk not to take a career gap than to take one.


How to take a career gap: further reading

Our vision at Career Gappers is to build a world where everyone is empowered to take time out of work to travel at any stage of their career.

We have written extensively about our own career gap experience, and compiled a series of resources to help you do the same. You may find the following articles useful:

We also have article about how to save for a career break and manage your travel finances:

Have you taken a career break to travel, or are you planning to do so? Get involved in the conversation in the comments below.

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As our approach to working life continues to change, and travel becomes evermore accessible, is career gapping about to become the number one travel trend? #careergap #careerbreak #sabbatical #trends #inspiration

28 comments

  1. This is such a great post! I took a “gap year” last year that still hasn’t ended (going on 2 years in a couple months!). It’s definitely something people needed to get used to the idea of, but I’m so glad I did it.

  2. Interesting! I wasnt familiar with term career gapping before. I think it’s great, there’s more to life than a 9 to 5. But I could see how some would view it as a quarter life crisis.

  3. Very interesting article! I’ve never had a gap year, but I’m taking 4 months off next year and I already think it’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever had 🙂

  4. Love this idea. As Sagmeister suggests, taking 5 years off your retirement and interspersing them into your pre-retirement life is a pretty unique idea. The challenge, of course, is doing that mid-career. You know, when you have kids in private school, and a mortgage, etc. Your career gap ends up being a 3 day weekend to Disneyworld. lol. That said, I think it’s possible that being more intentional about this, it’s doable. Great concept!

  5. I just recently read another blog post about this same topic and I didn’t know it was possibly in our era. I live in the states and there isn’t a lot of people being able to do such as this. Close to impossible, unless you were born with a silver spoon. I hope dearly I can do the same. I travel a lot but am completely reliant on my job. Thanks for the info.

  6. Very interesting post. I learned quite a few things about it. I feel like career gapping still remains largely a First World thing though. Something like this in India is almost impossible to do because of lack of knowledge about how to proceed with it, cultural expectations of holding a steady job, and also us being conditioned to do ‘what we are suppose to do’.

  7. I admired those who can take a break from work and do travel, not sure if I can do that though, since I need money to travel, unless I have extra to do so 🙂

  8. I sure hope it is! I desperately want my husband to take a year off from teaching so we can travel. We’re not ready yet- we’dh ave some saving and planning to do. But you guys inspire me and I’m hoping that sharing your story will help convince him when the time is right!

  9. although I’m a “gen-x’er” I have the mindset of a millenial. I would love to take time off a career gap and take off. What’s the point of studying, working only to be too old to enjoy it all. However, all of that said, my husband is a bit married to his academic career in medicine, so we are stuck, but make time for travel when we can. I love that you were able to have this experience and help educate others on how to accomplish it.

  10. You know what? I really do think career gapping will explode in the coming years! I actually know people both through work and through school (my ex teachers!!) who are planning an imminent 12-18 month sabbatical, mostly to travel. It’s definitely something I would agree in the future.

    I think I may have accidentally taken a career gap in 2016? Although I was only 23 so like you said, the 1 yr gap in my CV likely won’t raise any eyebrows, I did take a year out to travel before returning to the same job in the same office with the same people. It was the best decision I made at the time (and probably in my life so far!!) and I love how much you advocate for it.

  11. I honestly never thought about a gap year, especially for freelance and travel, until this year. Thanks for all the tips on taking a gap year. A lot of it is feeling like it’s a big risk financially, but I also appreciated how you talked about the benefits of taking a gap year. Great post. Inspired me to remain on this road of freelancing and getting to know myself

  12. I absolutely see this becoming a bigger trend, some previously considered ‘lifetime’ careers like police are actually working career gaps into their contracts! So promising 🙂

  13. I feel like career gapping is become more and more popular, and from my personal observation it is among people from Western Europe. I met a lot of travelers from that part of the world aged between 25-35 who just took some time off.

  14. I love that you have addressed this. I have been telling my friends to work hard, save up and take a year of to find new possibilities. Its make yourself feel happier which makes you healthier. Great blog.

  15. I really loved reading your blog post as taking a career gap from those routine jobs for traveling must be so exciting. For me, a small career gap is required for all to understand ourselves and how to approach life. Thanks for sharing many unique experiences.

  16. A very well-researched and interesting article as usual from this blog. The information is not new but the insights are really something I never thought about (but I agree with). Hope to take a career gap year in near future

  17. Very informative post! I’m currently taking a “career gap” after working as senior executive for 11 years. This is my first ever gap year after I entered the corporate life and I’ve noticed a big difference with my stress level. I am not sure if I still want to go back but I believe it’s really important to take a break with work from time to time. Not only your body will thank you but also your mental health.

  18. I can’t agree more! This crackpot idea will be the best idea ever.

    Career gapping is actually a thing now, though it’s still followed more in the west. I am glad you have come up with an article on it because it encourages more of us to at least think about it if not jump into it straight. Also it makes more sense and easy to believe in since it’s coming from someone who believes in the idea enough to dedicate the name of their blog to it.

  19. I love that! I am also a big believer that work as we know it is becoming more fluid, flexing around our lives rather than the other way around. It is almost like HR want us to get it out of our system before to hire someone!

  20. Interesting read. I think in addition to taking a gap year, it’s also much easier to work remotely as technology continues to advance. I think the whole workforce will look unrecognisable in future years and most probably, some people will struggle to keep up.

  21. The trend of taking a break and working remotely while traveling around the world seems to pick up across the globe. I know people who have taken off from work for some time to travel. But many come back to join the same 9 to 5 grind after a few months. Not everyone can earn well from remote work. I guess one must have sufficient savings to stretch through the entire gap period before one thinks about it.

  22. I think this question cannot be answered in general since it depends also strongly on the development of economics and employment. I’m a strong advocate of a good work-life-balance, but at the end of the day I will always take the a.m. factors into consideration since I do depend on my income.

  23. As much as I can imagine full-time traveling and career gapping to be rewarding, I can imagine I would get the anxieties of not being productive. I am more in favor of working as you go, as it makes the traveling moments much more meaningful. Anyway, as obsessed with travel as I am, I would for sure take advantage of any long work break I could get.

  24. I never did a career gapping before, however, when I think to it people who are like me working full time needs a break in my career. Sometimes a vacation could be sufficient but when it comes to another matter especially for women. Getting pregnant would necessarily take the career gapp in ng method (which is paid by the employer in the sense) but for those who want to pursue something else I’m not sure if you could comeback in your old job you have to search a new one for sure unless you’re the boss.

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